The Content (R)evolution: Rick Kupchella on the Power of Brand-Driven News
If you’ve ever read a Buzzfeed article, you know that brands are capitalizing on the opportunity to publish their own brand stories in the context of news distribution. Or, if content aggregation sites aren’t your chosen diversion, maybe you clicked on the enticing headline of a New York Times article while scrolling through your newsfeed — only to realize halfway through that it was actually sponsored by a brand, like GE or Netflix. But, you likely kept reading because you were interested in the subject matter (which is why you clicked on it in the first place).
This format is the result of an intersection of news and content marketing, a completely unprecedented space in the media landscape in which online users are perusing articles, sending snaps and sharing memes that often are riddled with brand messaging. “Content” has become a buzzword that, for many marketers, sounds like the magic wand to all their consumer engagement woes. However, once hopeful brands have learned that the key to success is not as simple as churning out pieces of content and blindly tossing them to audiences, like candy at a Fourth of July parade. So how can brands take advantage of the “news content revolution” in a strategic way?
To answer this question, I turned to Rick Kupchella, who first came to the Twin Cities as a reporter and then anchor at KARE-TV. Over the last eight years, he has shifted his focus away from news reporting, opting instead to develop a series of businesses that offer innovative executions of news and brand storytelling. Here, he shares lessons from diving headfirst into the ever-evolving field of content production and distribution.
1. What inspired your transition from news broadcasting to content creation and distribution?
"I worked at KARE 11 for over 20 years as a reporter and anchor. During my last few years there, I noticed that the model for news delivery was changing dramatically. Specifically, it was shifting away from the paternalistic model of media conglomerates — whose message was 'let me help you understand what’s happening in the world' — to a much more consumer-directed model. This shift was all about disintermediation: the removal of a brokering entity between producers and consumers. The speed of technological advancement continues to drive rapid change across many vertical markets.
Just as our society transitioned from radio to TV over a half-century ago, we now find ourselves in the age of digital disruption. News outlets are moving from an old model that centers on production for audience experience to one that focuses on distribution, in which users can choose their preferred modes of consumption. In other words, consumers have more of a say in selecting which news they consume and the manner in which they consume it than ever before.
The reality of accelerated consumer control and decision-making is what inspired me to jump into independent business — first exploring new models for news distribution, and now squarely focused on helping major brands understand how to use the new media landscape both to their own advantage, and to the advantage of millions of consumers."
2. HOW DO BRAND CONTENT CREATORS IDENTIFY RELEVANT TOPICS AND ENSURE THAT THEIR CONTENT WILL REACH THE RIGHT AUDIENCES?
"The emergence of data and analytics has opened so many doors for communicators, allowing us to engage with consumers on another level. Rather than relying on the old model of distributing information to the masses, now brands can examine what their target audiences are talking about in real time.
For example, we at the i.e. (informed engagement) network use social media intelligence as a primary tool to help our clients understand their customers and influencers. We study target audiences in aggregate and help our clients identify the biggest influencers in the group. We pay attention to what they’re talking about — literally what words they’re using — and use that Intel to inform clients on the best way to connect with their audiences directly. We work with our clients to contribute to these conversations in real time, looking for opportunities to advance their areas of expertise. This approach has helped us connect our clients to some of the top influencers in their spaces, ultimately helping them to inform and engage their own audiences in ways that drive their bottom lines."
3. Do you have an example of a project that used this approach to help a client understand its audiences’ conversations and form content around them?
"In 2012, the i.e. network produced a campaign for UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare & Retirement division called 'A New Age.' The client was looking for a way to establish brand presence and industry expertise beyond the scope of traditional television ads in an effort to generate more leads. Our team dove into some deep segmentation research to identify and understand the target audience, and from there was able to form educational content around aging and its impact on the healthcare system. The 'soft documentary' we created aired as paid content on broadcast networks in key markets, and proved the tremendous value of storytelling in a consumer-driven environment such as healthcare."
See more details of the case study here.
4. WHICH METRICS ARE MOST IMPORTANT FOR DEMONSTRATING THE VALUE OF A PIECE OF CONTENT?
"We used to measure TV ratings by 15-minute increments, but those didn’t really tell us how long viewers were watching (or if they were in front of their TVs at all) and why they chose to watch a specific program. Now, many users get their news from social media platforms like Facebook, for which there are algorithms that determine which pieces of content have the highest “relevancy.” (Editor's note: In 2015, Pew Research Center reported that 63 percent of Twitter and Facebook users considered these platforms news sources for events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.) For advertisers, the relevancy of an ad is measured by the amount of clicks it generates. So for social platforms like Facebook, clicks are most important."
5. IF Writers AND CONTENT MARKETERS ARE DESIGNING THEIR ARTICLES TO BE “CLICKABLE,” WOULD YOU CALL THAT CLICK-BAIT?
"No, leveraging data for brand storytelling is not click-bait; in fact, true content marketers are fighting against it. Click-bait is a pejorative term that has become synonymous with disingenuous, and is a misleading way to get clicks. By definition, click-bait promises more than will be delivered.
If you’re using news or brand storytelling as a way to build relationships with target audiences, you need to be as genuine and authentic as possible in order to increase trust with those audiences. If you were to develop a reputation as a click-bait ‘artist’ in today’s digital environment, you would be hard-pressed to achieve goals aligned with building trust and credibility with your audience. In fact, you’d create the opposite. Our companies are in the trust- and credibility- building business. Everything we do is in the pursuit of business growth — both our clients’ and our own."
6. What’s the largest obstacle you’ve faced in your exploration of news media and brand storytelling?
"Coming from the culture of news broadcasting, it was a struggle to accept that new business development takes time. Not every client’s industry functions at the speed of lightning, like I was accustomed to with the 24/7 news cycle. In news, you focus on what’s happening right now, but new business development is a much longer process.
We are working hard to help brands understand their own potentials in this space, and much of our time is spent educating them on the value of content production and distribution, and how their businesses can fit into that model. We really have to get down in the trenches with our clients to build a solid foundation of trust; but once that’s established, we can successfully help them grow their relevance to customer bases and ultimately increase their business."
7. What is the key piece of advice you’d give to marketers trying to succeed in this space?
"The advice I’d offer is that you are not required to have a master plan in place, with every division of your company marching in unison, in order to explore the world of brand-driven content. What we do is skunkworks, meaning very experimental work. We start small, and test those ideas at a rapid pace. This allows us to see what does and does not work, and we modify our strategies based on the results.
The opportunity for any brand to develop a really solid relationship with its customers and to increase the brand’s relevance in their lives has never been greater than it is right now. Organizations that achieve the most will be the ones who are truest to their core brand identities, missions and values, and know how to communicate those messages to their audiences. Those will be the ones that win."
Julia Irwin is an assistant account executive at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.